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WAMG goes to The Famous Monsters Convention 2010

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I finally got to attend a Famous Monsters Convention! I’ve been a huge fan of the magazine since I bought my first issue when I was 8 years old in 1969 at Wood Drug Store at the corner of Taylor and Manchester in Kirkwood. It was issue #64 with Basil Gogo’s painting of Vincent Price from HOUSE OF WAX on the cover and from then on, I lived for the magazine, buying all subsequent issues and eventually tracking the earlier ones until I acquired a complete run. In 1973 the first Famous Monsters Convention was held but I was too young to attend. The magazine, run by legendary editor Forry Ackerman, ended its original run in 1983 after 191 issues. Famous Monsters returned to newsstands (sans Forry) in a couple of brief incarnations (including an on-line form) over the next couple of decades and another Famous Monsters Convention was held in 1993 (I wish I had gone but I was underemployed at the time and couldn’t afford it). Forry Ackerman died in 2008 at age 93 and a fellow named Phil Kim soon purchased the Famous Monsters brand. When I heard that Phil was not only bringing the magazine back in print form but that he was throwing a large-scale convention July 9-11 in Indianapolis, I contacted him. I told him about my Super-8 Movie Madness show, which I throw at the Way Out Club the first Tuesday night of every month in St. Louis. I convinced him that a Super-8 MONSTER Movie Madness show would fit right into the theme of his convention and that it would be a nostalgic trip for monster kids who grew up reading Famous Monsters! Phil invited me to bring my equipment and a box full of Super-8 sound condensed versions of classic monster movies to the show. This was a real treat for me since I had purchased my first Super-8 films as a child through the order forms in the back page of Famous Monsters!

Phil Kim and Co. premiered their new issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland, #251, at the con and what they are doing with the magazine is fantastic. There are four different covers, all by notable fantasy artists, and I didn’t hesitate to buy a couple of copies of the special ‘Convention Cover’ issue that they unveiled. The new magazine well-captures the spirit of the old one with a good portion dedicated to the classic movie monsters. That said, I wish the Con had been geared in that direction as well, but it wasn’t. It was ambitious and for a first Con, went about as well as could be expected, but it was way too skewed toward the younger tattoo/goth/death-metal crowd with not enough programming geared to ‘Monster Kids of a certain age’ (ya know, the folks that actually grew up reading Famous Monsters).

The problem with the con can be summed up in the ‘celebrity’ guest list. The two guests who best represented the classic Famous Monsters brand were artist Basil Gogos, who painted so many of the wonderful FM covers and Bela Lugosi Jr, (who looks like a robust version of his Dad in those final days).  Both were gracious and approachable, and added much-needed class and nostalgia to the proceedings. (though they weren’t around on Sunday). The NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD/DAWN OF THE DEAD/DAY OF THE DEAD casts were there. They were all super-nice but have been doing a lot of shows the past few years and are a bit overexposed. The RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD cast was new (at least to me) and I was glad to see them there. The guests I was most jazzed about meeting were Herschell Gordon Lewis, Margot Kidder, Eric Roberts, and Thomas Jayne, but they were all no-shows. I understand that cancellations are always a risk and not something promoters can’t control but it was still disappointing. I know Lewis cancelled a couple months beforehand, Kidder a couple of weeks before, Roberts I’m not sure when (I noticed one day he was scrubbed from the site), and apparently, Jayne the headliner (though, with the exception of PUNISHER and THE MIST, a curious choice for a Famous Monsters headliner) was a last minute cancellation (I heard to attend a funeral). Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, William Forsythe, and stars like that are nice guys and staples at these shows but there was almost no one representing the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. These were the decades Famous Monsters of Filmland was published. There are plenty of players from horror films of that era still with us and I couldn’t understand why none were included (some Hammer glamour would have been nice). Were some invited? I don’t know but there’s something wrong when I attend a ‘Famous Monsters’ con and my favorite guest is Denise Nickerson, who played Violet Beauregarde in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. My understanding is that a promoter who later severed ties with Famous Monsters had booked most of these guests.

Programming: There was a fantastic 2-hour panel discussion with Phil Kim, Lugosi Jr, Gogos, Mick Garris, and several others including a life-size Forry puppet Saturday afternoon. They reflected on the past and future of FM and all spoke at length sharing anecdotes about Forry. To me this was the highlight of the weekend (though not well-attended). On Sunday there was supposed to be another panel with some of these same people on ‘Famous Monsters Lifestyle’ but it never happened (I was told the participants were “too tired”). There was something called ‘Famous Monsters Film School’ but I didn’t make that. There were separate Q&A panels with the Romero DEAD casts and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD cast and those were, as usual, most interesting. Charles Band’s roadshow is always a hoot. Most of the other programming was films, both feature length and shorts, by amateur filmmakers followed (or preceded) by panels by them. The rooms for most of these only held 50 seats but most were still poorly attended. I ran my 18 minute condensed versions of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE in 3-D on Super-8 sound film Sunday afternoon in one of these rooms. All 50 seats were filled and there were people standing near the back. I think that enthusiasm reflected a real desire for nostalgia that was missing. The parade of FM beauty contestants was fine but I didn’t get the con’s tattoo sub-theme. There was a tattoo contest/display in a cavernous nightclub within the hotel that went on for hours and hours all day Saturday and Sunday. Tattoos were shown off, but unless you were sitting less than a few feet away (which no one was) you couldn’t see them anyway. I’m sure the local Indy ‘tattoo crowd’ was thrilled with this event, but again I’m failing to see how it had anything to do with classic monsters.

The VIP party: This is where I think the organizers could have done something special but really dropped the ball. It was very well attended (I’d guess 400 or more were in the ballroom). It cost (some people) an extra $25.00 (which bought stale pizza and access to a cash bar), but they weren’t keeping track of who paid and who didn’t and were letting folks file in regardless. I was running Super-8 monster movies on a large screen off to one side of the stage but had to turn the sound off after about an hour. There were some awards given to horror host Sammy Terri, Lugosi Jr, actor Billy Drago, and others but none of them spoke. Phil Kim didn’t speak either. Then there was a magician but you had to get on the dance floor near him to see what he was doing. About 10:30 a wretched death metal band got on stage and as soon as they began, half the crowd bolted for the exits. I continued to show films for about another hour with the sound down while the band played. After their set, it was time for a video and panel tribute to a ‘Horror Movie Icon’. This was the Famous Monsters of Filmland VIP party at the first FM convention in 17 years, so I’m sure you’re thinking the tribute was perhaps for…..hmmm… Forry Ackerman?..….Wrong!…maybe Ray Harryhausen, whose 90th birthday was the previous week?….wrong again….perhaps Vincent Price, whose 100th birthday would have been next spring?….nope. The VIP party at the first Famous Monsters convention in 17 years paid tribute to….Corey Haim !?!?! I know when I think classic movie monsters, the first star I think of is a former child star who appeared in a couple of horror comedies in the 80’s . I loaded up my projectors and was back in my room before midnight, though I heard that I missed two more metal bands that played until 2am. Again, the VIP party would have been the perfect opportunity to celebrate movie monsters but they instead went for a heavy metal show with a Corey Haim tribute.

The Dealer room: Cortland Hull had his unique life-size figures displayed but where was the Universal Monster Army and their awesome display of vintage 60′s monster toys? Were they invited? It would have been the perfect place for them. The FM gang had a whole wall and some impressive banners plugging their magazine and upcoming film projects (!). The new FM #251 they were selling seems impressive (I haven’t read the 130 page mag yet), but the all-Forry Ackerman issue #250 seemed even better and covered in detail his 47 film appearances. Many of the amateur filmmakers had tables and were selling DVDs of their films (and some were selling, or trying to sell, autographed photos of themselves). There were too few vintage items for sale. Mike Pierce, of Monsters Among Us, had his amazing collection of vintage monster mags and Famous Monsters back issues and Corey from ‘Reel Art’ Movie Posters had some good deals (I bought vintage NIGHT TIDE, THE FLESH EATERS, CASTLE OF BLOOD and OBLONG BOX 14 x36 insert postes for $10.00 each!). Gary Nickel’s had some great t-shirts and I bought his SHE-CREATURE and DR. PHIBES work shirts. One thing that was missing was DVD-Rs of rare movies. There were none and I’m wondering if the organizers forbid them for legal reasons (usually cons are loaded with these). What there was plenty of was homemade jewelry, artwork, soap, and t-shirts (some with vulgar sayings that would have made Forry blush). The dealers I talked to did not do well in sales. I think with the large number of celebs, attendees may not have had enough money to spend after purchasing autographs.

This is just my honest assessment of the Famous Monsters Con and I’m not trying to be a whiner. I talked to many attendees my age and most felt the same way I did. I’m glad I went and saw a lot of old friends and always had someone to talk to. It went well in terms of organization. Phil Kim’s a businessman and sees a demographic he feels he needs to appeal to. I just wish it had been more distinguished from all the other cons, more a celebration of classic monsters, and maybe the next one will. As someone else noted: “You can by a brand, but you can’t buy a legacy” (maybe Famous Monsters will put Corey Haim on the cover of issue #252!). When the death-metal band took the stage at the VIP party, the singer began by shrieking, “I know you’ve all come here to rock!!!” I shouted back, “No, we’ve come here to celebrate Movie Monsters!”, but I don’t think anyone heard me.

l to r: Banners of the new covers in the dealer room, Me setting up Super-8 Monster Movie Madness at the VIP ball, Bela Lugosi Jr. with Famous Monsters editor Phil Kim

l to r: The Forry Ackerman action figure!, actor Tony Todd (CANDYMAN) greets Ed Gale (of Chucky fame), Con stalwart Tom Savini, wearing the rusty SAW mask.

l to r: with Denise Nickerson (Violet from WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY), costumed ghosts, Legendary Famous Monsters cover artist Basil Gogos, some of Cortland Hull’s lifesize monster figures.

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